Interview: Michael Keaton on Acting and Fly Fishing

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton stars in the new film “Birdman” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a work that required “unbelievable patience.”  “Birdman” arrives in theaters on October 17, 2014.

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Marshall Cutchin:    Besides being a quirky and inventive actor with a long list of successful movies to his credit, Michael Keaton likes to fly fish. He spends a good part of the summer on his ranch in Montana fly fishing the local streams, and during the rest of the year he travels to fish for bonefish and tarpon.

Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

Are there parallels between fly fishing and acting?

Michael Keaton:   Well, there are real parallels when you ride a cutting horse, which I haven’t really done for a while, but I noticed that immediately. The parallels between the three of them are how focus works. When I started fishing with a fly I was probably twenty-five.  It was more than that.  How ever long I’d been doing it. Over twenty-five years ago. Thirty years ago. More than thirty.

I would tell people, it wasn’t exactly the hippest thing back then. I would tell friends of mine and they would laugh. They just didn’t know what I was talking about or they would think I was being funny. If they had any knowledge of it they assumed that given my personality that I was joking, but that was obviously not the thing I would do. What I don’t think they got, now people kind of get it, is it’s the one place you can drift off but at the same time be totally locked in simultaneously. You know what I mean?

MC:    Uh huh.

MK:   That’s kind of hard for people to quite understand, so an easier way to explain it actually is when you ride a cutting horse, when it’s its best—I think McGuane would back me up on this—it’s best when you are one hundred and ninety percent present and at the same time not gripping, not so focused that your legs are wrapped tight. You’re relaxed but totally present simultaneously. You’re totally breathing. You know, I used to go out and ride in the herd and these guys would be looking at me. When it comes to athletic events I tend to get a little intense, so these guys used to look at me. They’d look at me and start laughing and go, “Michael, you have to breathe.”

It’s like that little zone where you dial a radio in and try and find a frequency and it’s really off in the wilderness somewhere and you’re trying to find some frequency. It’s just that really little spot that you get them both, where you get one hundred percent relaxation and one hundred percent focus and being present, being totally locked in. When you find that in acting—you know, everybody talks about that, and there are actually relaxation exercises—when you find that you just kind of let it all go but you stay present in the scene, totally locked in your character. That’s when it’s best.

You know, fly fishing does that to some degree because it’s the crazy minutia. I’m sure this has happened to you, where you’ve been so locked in for hours and focused and locked and then you get, you step outside yourself and look at what you’re doing and it seems like a totally insane form of recreation. The big picture when you look at what you’re actually doing and the amount of hours and energy and focus and money you put into the ultimate goal, it seems like a totally insane pursuit. You know what I mean?

MC:    Yeah, yeah.

MK:  I try not to think about that.

MC:   I was going to say, people would just ask me sometimes when I really like to fly fish the most and what was it about it. I would just say, “Well, it’s best when it’s unconscious.”

MK:   Totally.

MC:   It’s really hard to explain that to somebody who doesn’t know what I’m talking about but obviously there’s some level at which fishing and acting are similar in that regard.

MK:   Totally. It is unconscious. It’s unconscious and it’s hyper-conscious at the same time, like simultaneously. You know what I mean?

That’s why I think it attracts creative people.  I mean, you write and you have that side of you.  I mean one of my favorite things ever, I say this all the time, I said “Not only was he an outstanding guide”—if you just said fishing guide, under that category—but you and I would get lost in these really… you know there are not too many people I can follow along in a flats boat all fucking day with in the hot sun. You run out of shit to talk about real fucking fast.

As much as I like fishing, after a while I start to hate fishing if I talk about it all the time. A friend of mine fell in love with skiing and he set up his law practice in a little mountain town so he could ski every day. Within a year he hated skiing. It’s like guys who say, “I’m going to run a fly fishing shop.” You hate fly fishing after about three months.

You’re a hundred percent right, you’re really conscious and at the same time not conscious at all. You kind of let it drift off and float off. It’s kind of a tricky thing. I think that’s why it attracts creative people. They’ve got the right brain and left brain thing kind of merging, I think.

MC:   Yeah, and despite all the energy that it takes, I think if you’re doing it right and you’re, so to speak, unconscious while it’s going on, you’re not aware that you’re getting tired.

MK:    No. No. It’s really relaxing. That tired at the end of the day is really good.

I knew this would happen, in terms of bird hunting. I really love to hunt birds and I’ve mostly always loved it for the dog work because I like my dogs and I really like going out and watching my dogs work. I love that time of year and I love being out, walking through the fields, everything that goes with it. I was always told, it used to happen to my Dad, he passed up so many years, just didn’t want to shoot anything any more. I find it harder and harder to shoot and kill anything. It’s not as interesting to me. It probably has to do with the closer you get to mortality everything is really, really precious.  I just don’t want to very much any more. I never was crazy about killing a lot of things anyway, ever since I started, but I do love bird hunting.

I was never, ever, ever a numbers guy in terms of how many fish you caught. It just didn’t interest me much and I loved to have a forty-fish day. That meant you had an enormously great day, or a twenty-fish day. It was never a big deal to me.

Over the last five years I’ve really gotten into the small, small, tiny niche hatches or the really, really difficult fish to catch, real spooky fish. Real low clear water. The whole approach and, you know, insanity. Sometimes you go, “I’ve been working this fucking fish for an hour and a half,” you know, “from different angles and I’ve only made three casts to him.” It was really fun to me, these days. I really love the small fly, fine tip it, clear water, on your knees creeping up. Going home after catching three really quality fish. That’s huge to me these days. I love it. I’m thrilled.

MC:   Well, you know, I remember the first time I think we fished together in a trout stream. It was not far from your house and it maybe goes back to the surprise element of people who try to associate your personality with fly fishing. I remember thinking, “Oh my God. He is incredibly patient.” [laughter] I couldn’t imagine the level of attention that you had to pay to make all that work.

MK:    You know what’s interesting? It’s getting even worse, you know, because there are days when I certainly am not. McGuane and I talk all the time. My favorite fishing is this: Your day’s kind of complete. You did everything you had to get done and you’ve got about an hour left of, it’s dusk. You walk and say, “I’m going to take a walk down to the creek.” You grab your rods, just take a walk down. You look. There might be a hatch. You catch one nice fish and go home.

What an unbelievable luxury I have that I can even think about doing that. Go down and catch a wild trout out of a stream in the evening? I mean, come on, that’s like a little kid’s dream.

Once again, here’s another parallel. This one job I finished, it was with this extraordinarily talented director. He’s as intense as they come. He’s fun too. He’s just really an intense worker. He drives people crazy. He wears out more actors… but he’s highly respected. He’s name is Alejandro Inarritu. He did “Babel” and he did “Biutiful” and a movie years ago called “Amores Perros.”

MC:  Yeah. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Yeah.

MK:  He’s really, really talented. I was warned by an actor who said, “Oh boy. Get ready.” He’s a famous, really, really great actor, and he said [Inarritu] just about wore him out.

Well, he couldn’t wear me out. I just refused to be worn out, first of all. By the way, he and I, we became great friends and we really have a mutual respect thing going, but in terms of patience, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, may ever do. Some day I’ll tell you but right now it’d be too boring. The amount of patience it took was valiant, that much patience. What’s weird about this is I actually work pretty quickly, unless it’s something I’m really trying to accomplish, I love, you know what I mean? The amount of patience on this job was  unbelievable, what it required from everybody, because of how he approached it and how demanding it is. But it never bothered me. During the time, it was tedious, but I kind of liked seeing how long I could stay locked.

That said, I saw “Gravity” and I’d be a horrible astronaut. [Laughs]

Michael Keaton Steelheading

Keaton has been spending more time lately chasing “micro hatches” on his local waters–and steelhead in British Columbia

MC:   [Laughs] What kind of fishing have you been doing lately? You said you’ve been fishing on the ranch. Have you been traveling at all?

MK:  No. I haven’t really had the time and I keep looking. Obviously you get on the mailing list, companies send you stuff and you think, “Oh, man! Why have I not been at these places all these years?” I really don’t know why I haven’t been doing it. The one thing I have been doing… years ago, many years ago, when I started hearing about steelhead… for a while I just didn’t know anything about it. I went up to Norman, California and after about two days of it, thought I’d give it a try. I really didn’t know what I was doing and I was standing in this river in Northern California. I couldn’t move my hands. Two days of nothing. The few fish you would see, if you tried to drop the thing right in front of their nose, they wouldn’t budge. I though, “I ain’t never doing this again.” I’m going to get into saltwater fishing where it’s warm and pleasant.

Then I did for a while. I was doing that fairly consistently even though I never really became a consistent salt water fisherman. I thought, “I’m never steelhead fishing. I don’t know what anybody would find this interesting.” Then I get invited, many years later, I think I went to the Dean, or I went to, I forget which river I went to. I wish it wouldn’t have happened to me but I hooked two or three steelhead and that was it, man. It was over. It was done. That was like the cruelest thing that could have ever happened to me.

I fish British Columbia every year and fish usually the stuff that gets hardly fished, because for me, that’s the ultimate. Going after stuff that was never getting fished or the potential of a fish never seeing a fly, whether you can do that or not. I’ve been doing that up in BC for the last, I don’t know how many years. The last eight? Six years. Something like that. That’s the one trip I do every year.

MC: It’s almost two different sports, when you’re fishing to fish that don’t see flies or don’t see anglers day in and day out.

MK:   You’re thinking that you can somehow defeat this thing whose instinct is, well, it’s all instinct. Humans aren’t all instinct. You’re trying to get into an animal world where you can never win. You can never win, ever. To fool this creature out of the water is such a fun endeavor, to try to trick something. That means for us, that’s a millisecond, you kind of got into his world, just kind of, dabbled into his world a little bit. That’s really thrilling because you could never do it, obviously. We don’t work on instinct. Human beings are so disconnected from their gut. That’s probably why it’s gotten popular again. Why guys don’t know why they like it but why it’s so popular. I guess. They don’t know why they like it but it’s because they’re disconnected from it.

Technology, as you know, has changed it. I am an average saltwater fisherman, and even I do fairly well now. I think I’ve had the advantage that everybody else has with the technology.  The rods cast the weight now. Boats are so much better. They can get you into position more. I can come off looking like I’m fairly good or I know what I’m doing. If you look at those guys who pioneered saltwater fishing, I couldn’t get near those guys. I mean, they were extraordinary, with what they used to use and the type of fish. I guess you could argue there were more, well, there were definitely more fish in those saltwater flats, and they were also fish that never saw a fly. There was no pressure.

MC:  Yeah. It was a little bit easier to practice back then.

MK:  Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t know that I could use the gear and do what they did. It was pretty amazing.

MC: Okay. Last question. Who’s better at casting from the back of a horse, you or Tom McGuane or Tom Brokaw?

MK:  Well, it would be close between me and McGuane. The only advantage I would have would be I wouldn’t be talking so much as I was doing it.

MC:   [Laughs] Are you sure about that?

MK: [Laughs] No. I’m not sure about that.

I always hope the guy reads these things because I always try to needle him and you know how merciless he can be. Hey, he just went down with, he was bird hunting. As we speak, he’s being operated on. He tore the muscle I think, it sounds like, going into his knee and then dislocated his knee or broke his knee somewhere falling down a ravine, bird hunting.

Now of course, you and I know the ravine is probably like a hole in the ground. It’ s probably actually just a hole in the ground but he called it a ravine. He sent me an email saying there is an upside to this. He said there is an artistic upside to this. He said, “I slid down into a stack of old cow bones. I’m going to figure out a way to use this.”

MC:    Perfect.

MK:    Yeah.